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Woodcarvers' Day, photo
Woodcarvers' Day

The Rebirth of Folklore in New Forms

While the older functions and forms of folklore disappear, an opposite current is building as more Lithuanians become aware of the value of their heritage. More and more, people try to find a place for traditional culture in their everyday lives. This "secondary folklore" is opening up a wide spectrum of new forms. As a result, the problem of reconciling folklore with the stage repeatedly arises.

The origins of stage performance of Lithuanian folklore date back to the end of the 19th century. At that time "Lithuanian Evenings", which functioned as unique theatrical protests against political oppression of Lithuania, began being held. Plays and concerts were staged in barns; their repertoires usually employed ethnographic material and the work of Lithuanian writers. This movement continued strongly until World War I.

The first folklore ensembles, which had already begun to manifest themselves in barn theaters and similar events, formed around the turn of the century. In 1906, P.Puskunigis founded the still functioning Skriaudziai kankles ensemble. Soon after, many kankles, skuduciai and ragai ensembles and kankles playing courses began appearing. One of the first significant ethnographic plays was called "The Kupiskenai Wedding". It was first presented in 1932, and has recently been successfully revived. All of the performers were local farmers. Similar wedding plays were held widely throughout Lithuania before World War II. Village school teachers and other enthusiasts in various parts of Dzukija held Senoves dienos ("Traditional Days") from 1935-38. These events included folk art exhibitions and performances by folk singers and musicians.

Theatrical pieces about peasant life as well as dances made the transition onto the stage without sacrificing much authenticity. However, this was not the case with concert song programs. As a result of the efforts of the distinguished Lithuanian philosopher Vydūnas and others, at the end of the 19th century, Lietuvininkai societies and choirs were founded in Eastern Prussia. Their concert programs included patriotic and folk songs. However, most of these reached the audience further harmonized following European standards and the examples of German choirs. It was thought that the traditional sound of folk songs no longer suited the needs and tastes of a well-educated public.

This choralization movement soon gained strength throughout the rest of Lithuania as well. Until the 1970's, the dominance of this style completely discouraged even the few attempts to present folk songs naturally on the stage. Singing styles which had lost their associations with specific regions and had become "Pan-Lithuanian" made their way into villages as well.

Dainu Sventes (song festivals) began being held in 1924. These featured combined choirs composed of thousands of singers from throughout Lithuania. In the Soviet period, they were held every five years. These festivals and other related events and contests became the epicenter of this type of concert activity. A multitude of so-called folk song and dance ensembles, foremost among them the professional "Lietuva" ensemble established in 1940, populated these festivals.

Among harmonized Lithuanian folk songs appeared other "Soviet" peoples' folk songs and ideological works by Lithuanian and other composers. Dances completely lost their traditional character as did costumes which had already begun to be stylized before World War II. Modern Lithuanian folk music instruments were created. Song and dance ensembles as well as new village folk music bands that almost completely overwhelmed traditional bands employed these instruments.

Stylized folklore should not be evaluated one-sidedly. On one hand, it was long a part of official ideological culture, on the other, as early as the days of Vydūnas it served to rouse Lithuanian patriotism. During the Soviet years, until the birth of the folk ensemble movement, it was the only genre to openly exhibit the possibilities of folklore-type concert performance. Today, folk song and dance ensembles are searching for more authentic forms once again.

In the early 1960's, conditions were favorable for the birth of a folklore movement which would draw from Lithuanian traditions and roots. Interest in traditional culture arose as a quasi-politically acceptable patriotic movement and as an alternative to official culture. This phenomenon was stimulated by the development of a new generation of scholarly folklore works and expeditions organized by the Krastotyros draugija (Ethnographic Society). Young students living in cities, especially those of Vilnius University, were most active in these undertakings.

The foundation of a tourism club at Vilnius University gave impetus to the zygeiviai (hiking) movement most active from 1968-71 after the Prague Spring events. Hikers traveled throughout Lithuania tending to historical areas, visiting the sites of resistance battles and learning folk and patriotic songs. Within this movement arose the Lithuanian Ramuva Society which sought to reconstruct ancient pagan Baltic celebrations. In 1967, this organization was initiated with the first celebration of Rasa (summer solstice) on the castle mound at Kernave. Celebrating Rasa, Jore (the first greening), equinoxes and other ancient Baltic occasions, the crafting of archaeologically-based clothing and jewelry reconstruction became quite popular in folklore circles.

Members of these movements were followed and persecuted by the KGB following the Brezhnev Reaction, especially after R. Kalanta immolated himself in protest in 1972. Nevertheless, their members continued engaging in activities promoting folklore, and later these organizations were revived. Quite a few of their participants became eminent statesmen.

Town folklore ensembles began forming in the early 1970's. At first, there were only a handful, mostly based in several of Vilnius' educational and other institutions. Later, in the 1980's, they grew in number. Ensembles appeared in smaller towns and children's groups began forming in schools. The example of city ensembles as well as ethnographic expeditions, folk music gatherings, invitations to give concerts in cities and increased radio and television program time dedicated to folklore encouraged talented village performers to gather into ensembles. City and village ensembles now number several hundred, although many groups (especially those in villages) are only temporarily formed for specific occasions or concerts.

During this period, ensemble terminology was finally defined. Village groups that draw from continuous traditions and perform their own area's folklore are now called ethnographic ensembles. Groups that indirectly adopt or recreate traditions are called folklore ensembles. These are most often located in the cities. Village ethnographic ensembles usually consist of older singers, dancers and musicians who draw from their own local folklore and unbroken traditions. However, even these groups have felt the influence of "Pan-Lithuanian" song and dance ensembles. City folklore ensembles do not necessarily present material from one area, sometimes they cover all of Lithuania. They collect material through expeditions, archives and publications, and reconstruct already dead traditions such as sutartines. Their members sew the best traditional costumes within their means following researched material. Some of these groups do more than just give concerts, they also organize private activities such as the recreation of calendar cycle celebrations and weddings with traditional clothing and old rites. In general, the transfer of folklorism from the cities back to villages is one of the characteristic features of the Lithuanian folklore movement.

The Rumsiskes Skansen was founded on the scenic eastern shore of the inland Kaunas "sea" in 1966. A folklore theater which restores and reworks the traditions of barn theaters is operated in the museum. The seeing off of winter (analogous to Shrove Tuesday) and other events are organized at the museum drawing together many ensembles and spectators. In 1983, the first summer camp was held there; later such camps became popular in Kelme and in other parts of Lithuania. These are unique courses in which anyone can learn to sing, dance, celebrate or craft folk items.

In the early 1970's, local folklore reviews and contests began appearing. In 1980, the first republic-wide ethnographic and folklore ensemble contest called "Ant mariu krantelio" (On the Sea Shore) was held at Rumsiskes. Over 1000 participants gathered for this event. Other important festivals include "Skamba skamba kankliai", held in Vilnius' old town each year since 1975, and "Atataria trimitai" held in Kaunas. The International Folklore Festival "Baltica" was first organized in Vilnius in 1987. Since then, it has been held each year alternately in all three Baltic countries. Later, several other international festivals also appeared. Today Lithuania is a member of CIOFF, and maintains contacts with folklore organizations around the world. Lithuania's folklore movement is particularly strong, even more so than similar ones in neighboring countries.

Ethnic cultural events, political activities connected with ethnoculture and similar work in Lithuania is organized by state institutions such as the Folk Culture Center, regional cultural divisions, newly created regional ethnic culture centers as well as the Lithuanian Ethnic Culture Society and others. However, this activity is usually of a spontaneous nature, and a large part of it depends on the initiative of organizers and enthusiasts.

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Next: Researching Traditional Culture Previous: The Disappearance of Traditional Culture

"LITHUANIAN ROOTS", Edited by Rytis Ambrazevicius

Copyright ©, 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.